2011–The 75th Anniversary of GWTW, the book, based in part on writings from the Mitchell family scrapbook, shown above.
Who would have thought that a city in Missouri would have anything to do with Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel Gone With The Wind? Well it does. As it turns out, the backdrop for Gone With The Wind was basically built around what happened when General William T. Sherman and his army came ripping through Clayton County where her characters, the O’Hara family, lived. Sherman is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
Margaret Mitchell’s real-life family, the Fitzgeralds lived near Jonesboro, Clayton County and had a personal encounter with Sherman himself. According to a recently discovered scrapbook, Mitchell based many things from GWTW on real events and people from her great-grandparents, great aunts, aunts and grandmother’s lives. Mitchell was raised on the stories handed down by her relatives; and none of them had anything favorable to say about Sherman as they were Southerners and he was the commander of the Union Army that swept through their area, killing many of their friends.
Background on Sherman
General Sherman was born Feb. 8, 1820 in Lancaster, Ohio, the son of a State Supreme Court judge who died when he was 9. His dad left him to be raised by Thomas Ewing a wealthy neighbor. Due to Ewing’s influence Sherman went to West Point where he graduated 6th in his class in 1840. After 13 years in the army he married Thomas Ewing’s daughter, Ellen, and left the service, moving to New Orleans. He failed at several businesses and finally became the superintendent of Louisiana Military Academy in1860.
He was a patriotic person, and though he loved the South, he was emotionally upset by the collapse of the Union. Though Sherman has been seen as a vicious man, by the South, he actually sympathized with their cause at first. He always said he wished slavery did not exist but that he “would not abolish or modify it” if he could. The same was said about Margaret Mitchell’s great-grandfather Philip Fitzgerald, that he was against slavery, but he owned slaves.
When South Carolina seceded from the Union, Sherman literally cried from anxiety, but when the state he was living in, Louisiana, seceded, Sherman headed for Washington, DC. His brother John was a senator from Ohio and he introduced him to Abraham Lincoln. At first Sherman didn’t like Lincoln. He wanted no part of the war and told his brother to use whatever power he had to try and stop it.
Sherman Moves To St. Louis
He moved to St. Louis and became the president of the St. Louis Railroad Streetcar Company where he worked for several months. In the years before the Civil War, St. Louis was a growing city and the railroad was being built through St. Louis. Up to then, the Mississippi River had provided most of the means of transportation with the riverboats. Now they were adding streetcars, and Sherman ran the company for a short while.
(Eventually in 1949 the main St. Louis transportation company became Bi-State Development evolving from the company Sherman had worked with, and eventually in 2003 it became Metro, so the current Metro-link and Metro Bus system has connections to General William Sherman.)
While in St. Louis, Sherman got to know Missouri Congressman Frank Blair who ended up serving under him. Blair was instrumental in blocking Missouri’s possible move to the Confederacy in 1861. Later, both Sherman and General Grant praised Blair for his leadership.
Sherman Suffers Break-down
Near the beginning of the Civil War, Sherman left Missouri for Kentucky and it has been said he had a nervous breakdown around this time.
It is interesting to note that the second Gone With The Wind director Victor Fleming was also reported to have suffered a nervous breakdown, but then both men went on to become rock-solid strong in their respective situations and of course they both had a huge impact in Gone With The Wind history, each in his own way. There were also those who doubted their nervous breakdowns.
Sherman Joins the Army
When Lincoln declared war, Sherman returned to the White House to volunteer but when Lincoln wanted to give him a commission as a brigadier general he refused it. He chose to begin as a colonel of a regular infantry—so he could advance and earn his stars without becoming a “political general” who had to be loyal to Lincoln’s administration.
General Grant Enters The Picture
Of course he eventually served as a General in the Civil War, first serving under Ulysses S. Grant, who also had ties to St. Louis. It was in St. Louis that Grant met his wife, Julia Dent at her family home—which is still standing– called White Haven. Julia was the sister of one of his Army buddies, and he had gone home with him for a visit.
He ended up living in St. Louis in a log cabin called Hardscrabble, not far from the Dent family plantation—which is also still standing on the grounds of Grant’s Farm (the estate of the Busch family who used to own Anheuser-Busch.) There is a whole neighborhood in South St. Louis County near where Grant lived where the streets are “General Grant Lane,” “General Sherman Drive,” “Grant Road,” etc.
In November 2010 St. Louis will host “Gateway To The Wind” A Gone With The Wind Festival with events at various venues in St. Louis including the Missouri History Museum and The Saint Louis University Art Museum.
Sherman Through Margaret Mitchell’s Eyes
In Margaret Mitchell’s book, her protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara saw Sherman as a terrible man, as she was a Southern woman and he led his army through her hometown and then the town she was living in, Atlanta. Much of Gone With The Wind was historically accurate, and many of the GWTW storylines involve Scarlett’s life and the world around her falling apart during Sherman’s reign.
Another St. Louis connection is that Rural Home the Fitzgerald (Mitchell’s family) home was built in very much the same manner as the Dent and Grant’s White Haven. Rural Home was the inspiration for Tara although Mitchell changed the physical appearance of Tara in the book and Hollywood further glamorized it. Since Rural Home has been torn down, it is helpful to see White Haven to be able to understand the type of house the Fitzgeralds lived in when General Sherman and his army came through.
Why Did Sherman Spare “Rural Home,” The Fitzgerald House?
According to The Making Of A Masterpiece, The True Story of Margaret Mitchell’s Classic Novel, Gone With The Wind, (www.GWTWbook.com) one reason given that Sherman left the Fitzgerald house standing was that he saw the family Crucifix on the wall and it reminded him of his wife who was Catholic. Once he found out Mrs. Fitzgerald’s name was Ellen and that she and some of the daughters were ill, he ordered his men to spare the house, but they used it as a headquarters.
Why Did He Spare “Tara,” The O’Hara House?
In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett was appalled when he heard this same basic thing happened to Tara. She asked her father why they didn’t burn Tara?
“Why—“ he fumbled, “they used the house as a headquarters.”
“Yankees—in this house?”
When she thought about it she felt sick. With just finding out her mother Ellen had died, she felt the walls of her beloved Tara were “sacred because Ellen had lived in it.”
Gerald O’Hara proceeded to tell his daughter how he her sisters and her mother were ill so they were unable to evacuate. It hurt her to hear him talking about Ellen.
“’Yes, yes.’ He mustn’t talk about Mother. Anything else. Even that General Sherman himself had used this room, Mother’s office, for his headquarters.”
The real –life General Sherman doubled as a character in Gone With The Wind.
As Gerald explained, “The Yankees were moving on Jonesboro to cut the railroad. And they came up the road from the river—thousands and thousands—and cannon and horses—thousands. I met them on the front porch.”
Sherman Goes Back To St. Louis
So General Sherman though mentioned only a few times in GWTW was actually a huge character because to Scarlett and her family, all of the consequences they suffered were as a direct result of General Sherman and his army.
Sherman died in New York, New York in 1891, and his body was taken by train to St. Louis, to the family plot. His son, Father Thomas Sherman, a Jesuit priest had a short funeral service. Buried next to him are his wife Ellen and two of his children.
There are some other GWTW connections to St. Louis which are mentioned in the book, but some involve actors from the area who were in Gone With The Wind. Those stories are for another day.
By Sally Tippett Rains, Author of The Making Of A Masterpiece, The True Story of Margaret Mitchell’s Classic Novel, Gone With The Wind (www.GWTWbook.com) April 15, 2010